by Paul Pryce. He is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.
The Independent State of Papua New Guinea is blessed with an expansive Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), encompassing almost 2.5 million square kilometres across South Pacific waterways like the Bismarck Sea, Solomon Sea, and Gulf of Papua. Aside from the eastern half of New Guinea, the country is comprised of many islands from the Melanesian chain, arching away from Australia. Given this geographic situation, one might expect robust maritime capabilities from the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF). However, that has not proven to be the case so far and Papua New Guinea remains largely dependent on the Royal Australian Navy and Australian Customs for assistance in policing its own waters.
As of this writing, the PNGDF maritime component is comprised of seven vessels: four Pacific-class patrol boats and three Balikpapan-class landing craft. The patrol boats were built by Tenix Defence, which was later acquired by BAE Systems Australia, in 1987-1989 and each has a displacement of approximately 162 tonnes. 22 vessels were built in total and donated by Australia to 12 Pacific island nations as a goodwill gesture. Meanwhile, the Balikpapan-class landing craft were built in 1973 by Walkers Limited of Australia and donated to Papua New Guinea upon its declaration of independence from Australia in 1975. These vessels are reportedly in a poor state of repair and the PGNDF is barely able to support one vessel at sea at a given time.
Papua New Guinea is seeking a 2,000 tonne multipurpose vessel to take up the task of regularly patrolling the country’s waterways. The Karel Doorman-class frigate, which is produced by Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding, could be one candidate. With a displacement of 2,800 tonnes, eight of these frigates have been produced thus far and are in service with the Dutch, Belgians, Portuguese, and Chileans. Capable of operating in deeper waters than the Pacific-class patrol boats, such a frigate would entrench Papua New Guinea’s independence. But it would also place considerable strain on the PNGDF’s resources. While the Karel Doorman-class requires a crew of approximately 150, the PGNDF naval component has little more than 200 sailors at its disposal. It is estimated that a new vessel of this class would cost $400 million, while total government revenue in Papua New Guinea averages $12 billion each year. Even a decommissioned frigate from a maritime power elsewhere in the world would require a significant investment from the Papua New Guinean authorities.
Yet there seems to be no sign that government bodies intend to make the necessary sacrifices. In December 2014, the country took possession of its third Balikpapan-class landing craft, a vessel which had served for almost 40 years in the Royal Australian Navy prior to its transfer and which will most assuredly become a drain on the PNGDF’s limited resources. Although Australia’s eagerness to part with outdated vessels is understandable, it is hardly in their strategic interest to preserve the status quo as far as Papua New Guinea’s maritime capabilities are concerned. Gangs operating in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea and located roughly 500 kilometres from the Queensland coast, have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. In the absence of a consistent naval presence, Papua New Guinea could quickly become a transit hub for cocaine and heroin destined for Australia.
There certainly is precedent for Pacific island nations becoming origin or transit countries for illicit narcotics bound for Australia, In August 2013, 750 kilograms of cocaine was confiscated on a yacht attempting to smuggle the shipment from Vanuatu into Australia. Vanuatu is also reportedly the source of considerable quantities of heroin and marijuana currently sold in the streets of many major Australian cities. Island nations located further afield, like Palau or Kiribati, have become links in the logistics chain for cocaine traveling from Latin America to Asian markets. The military forces of those countries also have weak maritime capabilities and do not see quite as frequent joint patrols with the Royal Australian Navy as Papua New Guinea does. Nonetheless, there is significant potential for organized crime to shift their operations closer to the Queensland coast from Vanuatu to Papua New Guinea unless PNGDF maritime capabilities are rapidly improved.
Capacity-building should be the priority in the future. Rather than the extravagant purchase of a state-of-the-art frigate or the acquisition of outdated landing craft, Papua New Guinea authorities should be encouraged by regional partners to find a happy medium. A revival of production for the Protector-class off-shore patrol vessels (OPVs) operated by the Royal New Zealand Navy would be ideal. With a displacement of 1,900 tonnes, these OPVs or a similar class of vessels would be an affordable means of patrolling Papua New Guinea’s expansive EEZ and deter organized crime. The Protector-class also requires a crew of only 35-50 personnel to operate. In the meantime, partners from Australia and New Zealand could train PNGDF personnel on similar vessels with a view to making the force self-sufficient.
With Malcolm Turnbull newly the Prime Minister of Australia, it remains to be seen whether defence cooperation with Papua Guinea will change to this new course. Discouraging freeloading behaviours and reinforcing Papua New Guinean independence must be the priority no matter who might happen to reside at the Lodge.